In the film “Black Sheep” Anthony Hopkins plays a CIA agent. There was a key scene in the film set at CIA headquarters in Langley. Typically federal agencies are willing to work with you, as long as you can defeat the stifling bureaucracy. However the CIA is not your typical federal agency. Post 9/11 they actually did make a serious outreach to media types in an attempt to improve their image, but that was not their attitude at the time we were filming. At the time you weren’t able to film at Langley, let alone scout it.
As we were working on the problem we learned that it went deeper even than that. Not only could we not take our own research pictures, we could not find many photos of the place at all. The very few we were able to dig up were pretty much useless. One was a satellite photo showing the outlines of the building from above, another was a shot of the façade taken from a great distance away. Nothing to give us any idea of what the interior looks like. Of course it’s a movie, you can portray a place as looking however you want. Still, it’s best to at least know what the real thing is before deviating to suit our needs. How do you go about re-creating a place when you don’t know what it looks like?
From the façade shot we knew that at least part of the exterior looked pretty much like a corporate office park. 60’s modern, lots of tinted glass and metal. Multiple connected buildings surrounding courtyards. Our scout Jack hit the road and started turning up good choices in Westchester and the surrounding areas just north of New York. While he got friendly with corporate media relations types we were still hung up on research for the look of the interior. It was becoming a real problem.
Fortunately the film was being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. When you are the world’s most successful producer doors open up for you that remain closed to mere mortals. Our line producer was an incredibly talented guy named Clayton, and when we took the problem to him he was plugged in enough with Bruckheimer’s people to get things done.
The production designer and I were called in to Clayton’s office one day. He told us he had something to show us but we could only watch it with him and it needed to be returned to its source immediately after viewing. He fired up a DVD and there it was, the interior of CIA headquarters. The video was produced much like you would see at a sales conference for a time share. It was not the real building, of course, but an animated computer rendering of it. Lots of swooping camera angles, slow pans around the place, and awful new age music. I have no idea how or why someone made the thing but they did, and we got to see it.
It’s good that we did, as the interior was more conservative and traditional than the exterior suggested. Acres of marble were broken up by the occasional dark wood accents. The most important revelation was one that would wind up becoming a major story point. That was the wall of honor in the foyer of the building. Several dozen stars were carved into a marble wall, each one representing an anonymous CIA Agent who had given their life in service of the country. Even watching it portrayed on the cheesy video the image was incredibly moving.
The video ended and was returned to its mysterious source, and we had a basis to scout with. Jack continued with the office parks for the exterior, but it was clear that we would have to separate the interior and exterior photography into separate locations. He had done his normal excellent work and found a pretty good match for the exterior at an IBM facility. It wasn’t a perfect match as it was much smaller than Langley but if you were judicious in the angles you used it could work. The interior wasn’t even close, nor were any of the interiors in similar buildings. We needed something significantly more impressive inside.
We knew this sort of building was easily found in Washington. The idea of traveling there was floated, but it was unlikely. The film was already very generously budgeted for extended shooting in New York and Prague, sending a unit to D.C. was cost prohibitive. New York just didn’t have the right building. We slowly expanded our search in wider and wider circles until we got lucky and nailed it in Nassau County. The federal courthouse there was a very close match. It had an amazing lobby with acres of the right marble built in the right Federalist style. Looks like we’re good with this one.
There’s always a catch though, isn’t there? Aside from having to shoot on weekends, the only other prohibition involved the security checkpoint. It stood fairly prominently in the entranceway, and was essentially similar to the setup you see in an airport. A small conveyer belt, a walk-through metal detector, etc. Looked totally out of place in the lobby and was much too low-tech and unimpressive to pass as a setup you would see in Langley. It was set up to be portable, and could clearly be easily moved and restored after the fact, but that option wasn’t on the table. The Captain in charge of the facility was adamant about it, no moving the security checkpoint.
This is the type of situation that is the most frustrating for me. I understand the Captain’s reluctance to compromise his security. That’s one of his most important responsibilities. But c’mon man, we make movies. Everything you see on the screen was created by people like us working to make it happen. We can take you to outer space or the deep blue sea. There is no limit to what we can do but time and money. We had both in abundance. The refusal to believe we can restore something as simple as that frigging security setup is flat out exasperating. I tried every approach without success. I offered to bring in the top security experts in the world to supervise the restoration. Donations to a favored charity to grease the wheels. Even exerted what political pressure I could. The Captain was clearly not the type that could be personally bribed. He was intransigent. The checkpoint stayed.
I had been clear with everyone involved from the start that the security checkpoint was an issue. No one else seemed concerned about it. I mentioned it to the point of being annoying, wrote memos about it, stuck post-it notes on all the photos of the location, basically covering my ass as well as I could. Everyone knew that the checkpoint had to stay. The Captain could not be convinced.
Things went well getting in to the location. We removed what we needed to, rolled up the carpets, added our set decoration and installed our faux wall of honor. The place looked great. Our director, Joel, came in to open up the set. He walked around nodding and smiling, was particularly impressed by the look of the stars on the memorial. As he left to return to his camper he casually pointed out the security checkpoint and said “That’s going away, right?”
He didn’t break stride or wait for an answer. Clayton pulled me aside and spoke so only I could hear him.
“Who is the guy who won’t let us move it?”
“The Captain, the tall guy with the crew cut over at that desk.”
“Okay, I want you to distract him for a couple minutes then bring him over and introduce him to me.”
“You got it.” I had no idea what he was cooking up but had nothing but trust in him so I went to work. I took the Captain outside and asked him some bullshit question about where the catering truck was parked. I then told him I had someone he should meet and brought him over the Clayton who was by the checkpoint. After making the introductions Clayton told him that he really needed to lose the setup there.
“Can’t be done” the Captain said. “Matter of fact we just had it realigned and recalibrated last week. If this thing isn’t set up perfectly it’s useless and I cannot have that.”
“That’s odd, because it looks like it’s already been moved.” Clayton pointed to the floor where there were scuff marks showing that the machines had been knocked off of their proper alignment. Somehow the security had been compromised while we were out by the catering truck. A look of concern crossed the Captain’s face.
“How did that happen? We keep a close eye on this thing.”
“I don’t know, Captain, that’s a shame. As long as it’s out of commission, though, is there any way we could just move it all the completely out of the way?” Clayton gave his most charming smile. “It would really help me out.”
“Very well, if you have the guys to do it. Go ahead. I have to go call the security company and get them back to fix it before Monday”.
And that, my friends is why Clayton is a great producer.
I’ve been largely fortunate in that I do pretty high-end jobs. That is largely due to my own personal circumstances and the freedom they have afforded me to be choosy. See, I live in a rent-stabilized apartment in the east village. The rent I pay is so low it is criminal. Until recently I was single, and the job pays very well. So well, in fact, that for many years I worked seven or eight months a year tops and spent my remaining time on a sailboat someplace in the tropics. Even so I made enough to save and invest as I pleased. This allowed me the freedom to pick and choose the jobs I was offered.
There have been times, however, where this has not been the case. I am by nature a pragmatist, and I also live a very indulgent lifestyle. Working freelance I’m obligated to keep an eye towards the future if only to make sure I’m taken care of. I openly admit to taking the occasional gig solely for the money.
One such job was a few years ago when everyone knew the writers guild was going to strike. From the studio heads on down we were all scrambling for work. They needed product and we needed paychecks. A whole lot of films that otherwise never would have been made suddenly got greenlit. It was like a big game of duck duck goose where the loser was bankrupt so it became a frightening feeding frenzy.
At the time I was firmly ensconced in the Jerry Bruckheimer camp. That’s another story entirely, and not one I can safely discuss here. I had also done a few films in a row with Joel Schumacher, who I absolutely adored. When they decided to do a movie together in New York there really wasn’t much choice about my involvement. They wanted me, I wanted them. Personal relationships aside, it was also the best paying gig going. If it wasn’t meant for me I would have done my best to get it anyway.
If you don’t work freelance that may be hard for you to understand. As much freedom as this sort of work affords you, it also does carry its obligations. You go through phases. Relationships ebb and wane. When the bonds are strong you need to service them. As much freedom as the lifestyle affords me at any given moment there are half a dozen people I am beholden to. People who, should they call me, I will jump on a plane within the hour and go anywhere in the world they tell me to and get to work. At the time I was offered this particular job the three entities I was most beholden to were (in no particular order) were Bruckheimer, Joel, and Twentieth Century Fox. As this gig involved all three I really had no choice.
All of which may well be my attempt to apologize for the awful movie we made. The working title was “Bad Company” but the ultimate release title was “Black Sheep”. No, not the Chris Farley film. And no, hopefully you haven’t seen it. If you have I apologize. On the surface it had plenty going for it. Jerry Bruckheimer is the most successful Producer in the history of film. Joel Schumacher’s career has been hit and miss, but when he gets it right he does an excellent job. Anthony Hopkins is an Oscar winner. Pity poor Chris Rock, this was openly acknowledged as his last shot at being a leading man and it did not work out in his favor. The real problem? The shooting script was the product of twenty-three writers. All top-notch talent but too many cooks, etc. No way that many collaborators will come up with something serviceable. This was a case of many talented people rushing things due to a deadline and the audience suffering the consequences. I apologize.
I love my job, love the work. There is great satisfaction to it on so many levels, and I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. It’s the farthest thing from working a square gig. Most film people compare it to running away and joining the circus. A group of you gather temporarily and work incredibly hard to put on a show. You show up in town and everyone gets excited. It’s showbiz. Just like the circus, though, there are moments when you are in the spotlight basking in the adoration of the crowd and others when you are shoveling the elephant crap. There are times when you work in unbelievably arduous conditions. No matter the circumstances you still need to get the job done. When the conditions get particularly bad I remind myself that I could be trapped in a cubicle somewhere bored out of my skull. The image of a boss hassling me about TPS reports is enough to convince me that whatever I’m going through at the moment isn’t that bad after all.
The longest day I ever worked was on the first week of the film “The Preacher’s Wife”. I was working as an Assistant Location Manager at the time for Dana Robin. Dana is a great guy and one of the most ethical, hard working people one could ever meet. As his ALM I felt it was my responsibility to make absolutely sure every problem of his was solved. A Location Manager has serious stress to deal with; his Assistant needs to work to eliminate it. I would walk through walls to make things happen for him.
On the day in question we were shooting out in Jersey City, in the City Hall actually. I was very nervous about shooting there. When working someplace with serious egos involved even the most minor screw-up can become a major issue. Normally I would have allowed one of our location assistants to handle the prep work there on their own but here I felt obligated to be present. I was on site in the morning working with prep crews who were decorating and lighting the City Council chambers we planned to shoot in that night. My main responsibility was with the actual shooting crew, yet I had already worked eight hours when they arrived. Unfortunately I had not yet learned that Penny Marshall works some very long days. We wound up shooting all night and into the next morning. By the time the camera wrapped I had been on set working for twenty-four straight hours.
Over time I have learned to delegate better, and this was one of the times that helped teach me the lesson. By all rights I should have left right at camera wrap but I didn’t. Wrapping the set and returning everything to the state we found it in was the responsibility of one of our location assistants, let’s call him Andrew. Andrew had reported just before general crew call, so at wrap he had been there working for about sixteen hours. Though I had been there hours longer, when it was time for me to leave I could see he was on the verge of collapse. I had no confidence that he could complete his work so I elected to stay behind and work with him.
I hated the idea of being there a minute longer but there was no way I could go home fearing that the job would not get done properly. We had a few hours work left supervising the wrap crews, making sure all our work was restored and the place was cleaned up nicely. We made it through two hours and were near the end. The rest of the crew was gone; it was just the two of us left on City Hall on a Saturday morning. All that needed done was the breakdown of our holding area. We had to fold and stack a hundred or so chairs and a dozen ten-foot folding tables. A pile of garbage bags had to be taken out and our work was done. With the finish line in sight Andrew fell apart.
“Sam, I can’t do this. I need to leave.” He was clearly burnt.
“Andrew, just stick with me man. Almost done.”
“I can’t. I just, I’m tired. I really need to leave.”
I could see that he meant it. He was losing his shit. Fuck him, though, I’d been there working just as hard for eight hours before he had arrived. I was beyond exhausted myself and was having a tough time mustering any sympathy for the guy.
“Gut it out, Andrew. At least help me with the folding tables, they’re a lot easier with two people than one.” I grabbed him by the arm and tried to pull him with me but he held firm. The kid really started to fall apart. He was shaking and his voice suddenly got really high. I saw tears forming in his eyes.
“I can’t, I can’t, I just need to go home. Let me go. Let. Me. Go.”
I had enough. Screw this guy, I wasn’t asking him to do anything I wasn’t doing. I had worked much longer and harder than him and he had the nerve to lose it on me? I instinctively borrowed a trick from Patton’s playbook. That is, I bitchslapped him, hard. Gave him a backhand right in the face. Didn’t think it through, it just happened. Unfortunately it did not have the desired effect of snapping him back into reality. No, much to my chagrin he went down like he was gutshot. Fell to the floor and curled up in the fetal position wailing uncontrollably.
My first instinct was to be embarrassed. Embarrassed and worried, but I quickly looked around and saw that there were no witnesses. He was clearly a lost cause and I still had work to do. What should have taken us fifteen minutes stretched into an hour of work without a second set of hands. I had no intention of hurting the kid when I slapped him; I was just trying to help him. I felt awful when he hit the floor. Now, however, with every heavy table I dragged across the room I had an intense urge to run over and put a boot in the kids gut. How dare he punk out on me.
Probably for the best that he pulled himself off of the floor and snuck out during one of my trips to the basement with garbage bags. By the time I finished I had worked twenty-seven straight hours.
Shockingly Andrew showed up for work on Monday. I hadn’t planned on ever seeing him again. I’d have a hard time showing my face if I ever failed someone that badly. Yet there he was at the catering truck Monday morning, putting away a bowl of oatmeal.
“Andrew, what the hell are you doing here?” He grinned sheepishly.
“Well I didn’t get a call time on Friday, so I figured I’d come at call.”
“Put down the bowl and get the hell out of my sight. I hired your replacement yesterday.”
He seemed surprised. Some people just don’t get it. He since took a civil service job where he can punch in at 9 and out at 5 with a half hour lunch break. He doesn’t have to work hard or worry much. He missed out on a lot of great experiences and even more money, but some just aren’t cut out for this type of work.